April 14, 2011

New Songs Spread Quickly Among Humpbacks

According to an Australian study, every year a new song spreads among the male humpback whales.

The research published on Thursday in Current Biology said the males are the only humpbacks who sing, mostly likely in hopes of finding a mate.

Researchers said that the song of the season has originated off the coast of eastern Australia for the past decade.

"Our findings reveal cultural change on a vast scale," Ellen Garland, a graduate student at The University of Queensland, said in a press release. Multiple songs moved like "cultural ripples from one population to another, causing all males to change their song to a new version."

The new song then ripples eastward across the South Pacific Ocean, from Australia to French Polynesia, infecting genetically distinct groups of whales who all start singing the same song during breeding season.

Garland said the songs are not all that original most of the time.

"It would be like splicing an old Beatles song with U2," Garland said in a statement. "Occasionally they completely throw the current song out the window and start singing a brand new song."

The study described itself as the "first documentation of a repeated, dynamic cultural change occurring across multiple populations at such a large geographic scale."

It is still a mystery as to why the whales all sing the same song, when their efforts are meant to make them stand out against the pack.

"We think this male quest for song novelty is in the hope of being that little bit different and perhaps more attractive to the opposite sex," Garland said in a statement.

"This is then countered by the urge to sing the same tune, by the need to conform."


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